The top opposition candidate in Belarus’s presidential election has left the country for Lithuania and called on her supporters to end demonstrations.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya initially refused to concede defeat in the election amid a massive police crackdown on protesters.
Looking dishevelled and distressed, Ms Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher and political novice, apologised to her supporters in a video statement and said it was her own choice to leave the country.
She said: “It was a very hard decision to make. I know that many of you will understand me, many others will condemn me and some will even hate me. But God forbid you ever face the choice that I faced.”
In a later video statement, she urged her supporters to respect the law and avoid clashes with police.
Her campaign aides said she made the unexpected move under duress. Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s husband has been at a Belarusian jail since his arrest in May.
Maria Kolesnikova, a top figure in Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign, said: “It’s very difficult to resist pressure when your family and all your inner circle have been taken hostages.”
Ms Tsikhanouskaya previously dismissed the official results of Sunday’s election showing authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko winning a sixth term by a landslide. Thousands of opposition supporters who also protested against the results met with a tough police crackdown in Minsk and several other Belarusian cities for two consecutive nights.